Movie musicals are back — maybe you’ve heard? In the past few years, we’ve basked in the glow of new gotta-sing-gotta-dance extravaganzas, from recent Broadway hits (Dear Evan Hansen) and cult favorites (The Prom) to Tony winners (Into the Heights) and personal tributes to/from Tony winners (Tick, Tick…Boom!). Want something original and weird? Check out Annette, the oddball Leos Carax/Sparks collaboration that, in a perfect world, will soon join the midnight-movie canon. Or perhaps something straight, with no chaser? Go watch Hamilton, a concert-film-like document of the original-cast production that still miraculously manages to make good use of the form. And that’s not even counting the various animated movies that are bursting with catchy, lung-testing show tunes. Articles have duly noted that a new wave is cresting, and we’re witnessing another return of what was once a staple of any moviegoer’s well-rounded diet. And yet….
And yet, bountiful crop or not, it didn’t necessarily feel like the musical was actually back. Not really. Not until now. Not until the moment you see those next-gen Jets started snapping their fingers.
The opening number of West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s all-in adaptation of the landmark Broadway musical and remake of the 1961 Oscar winner, aims to be as exhilarating and breathtaking as humanly possible. It wildly succeeds, as do many of the classic set pieces we know and love, with flying colors (sometimes literally with flying colors). The juvenile-delinquent struts that burst into ballet moves, the abrupt leaps into the air, the sight of old-school greasers displaying an amazing grace, the synchronized bodies in motion moving past city street corners: It’s all as much of a rush here as it was in Robert Wise’s version. Suddenly, the notion of movie musicals returning to center stage doesn’t seem like mere trend-piece fodder.
But that’s not technically how the film begins. The first thing we see — before the Jets and the Sharks, before Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) start making goo-goo eyes at each other, before Officer Krupke hassles these depraved-because-they’re-deprived kids, before anyone questions how many bullets are left in the gun — is New York City. Or rather, a New York City that’s in the process of vanishing, being wiped away, receding into history. As the camera swoops and twists around partially demolished buildings, we glide past an illustrated sign on a construction site: Lincoln Center. The houses where the largely Puerto Rican families and “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians” once lived are being torn down so the rich and powerful can watch opera. The turf these two gangs are fighting over? Their battle has already been won by a third party, not with switchblades but with bureaucracy and bulldozers. At the end of that first musical number, after the cops have broken up a fight, the Jets sing their victory song as kings of the mountain on top of a pile of rubble.
Race remains a factor and an essential part of the DNA of this West Side Story, as both a source of pride — listen to the Sharks sing their collective fuck-you to their rivals and the authorities in Spanish — and a division to be exploited and weaponized. (Should the inflammatory bullshit coming out of the mouth of Corey Stoll’s Lieutenant Schrank bring to mind certain TV personalities and politicians, it’s not a coincidence.) But class gets shoved to the forefront as well, and you can feel Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who adds quite a bit to Arthur Laurents’ original book for the play, emphasizing how futile this fighting is. Not that they ignore prejudices, or for that matter fully reckon with the piece’s problematic past in terms of perpetrating dodgy stereotypes. “America,” restaged on a bustling street instead of a rooftop yet remaining every bit the showstopper, still contains the bitter couplet “life is all right in America/if you’re all white in America.”
But the creative team wants to draw a line between the toxic attitudes of the 1950s and now, and while the more overt nudges in regard to the present may bruise your ribs a bit, they do underline how perpetual all of this is. The disenfranchised continue to look down on people who still have to work twice as hard for half as much and prove they are “real” citizens; when the head Shark calls his enemy a derogatory term for Polish people, his girlfriend says, “Now you sound like an American.” The cameras may be able to soar above the fray, but these characters can’t. Only the neighborhoods have changed.
That, and the casting. Gone are the white actors in brown makeup — which even Rita Moreno had to wear in 1961 — replaced with a screen version in which Latinx performers play Latinx characters. Welcome to the 21st century, West Side Story! And the young ensemble Spielberg has assembled, from the lead to the background dancers, is what keeps this from feeling like a superiorly staged museum piece. Zegler’s Maria is all wide eyes and heart-on-sleeve swooning, with a voice that can sell either intimate or Broadway bombastic beautifully, especially in a standard like “Tonight.” Ditto Ariana DeBose, a.k.a. your new Anita, a strong contender for Most Valuable Player here, whose energy — in her singing, her dancing, her line-reading, her side-eyeing — could power a metropolitan block. This what a dynamo looks like. (Cast her as Lady Macbeth, and Janis Joplin, and Nora in A Doll’s House, and every single part in a remake of George Cukor’s The Women, you cowards!) Both Mike Faist and David Alavarez, respectively playing the dual street-fighting-man roles of Riff and Bernardo, give these characters soul and a sharp edge. If Ansel Elgort verges on seeming a little stiff here, it’s largely because, comparatively, everyone else seems to be vibrating on a higher frequency. He’s perfectly fine as Tony, hitting the notes and his marks, though you can’t be blamed for thinking of certain off-screen business while watching him and thus cringing a bit during his more romantic scenes.
So much is the same in this new version, from the way Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s music seem like a match made in heaven (or at least on 46th and Broadway, but, y’know, six of one) to the way the skewed story of Romeo and Juliet hugs its tragic contours. So much is different, from the way choreographer Justin Peck builds off of Jerome Robbins’ justifiably famous dances while adding new velocity, to switching the role of kindly shopkeeper Doc to a Puerto Rican matriarch named Valentina, thus giving Rita Moreno another chance to put her inimitable stamp on the material. (When she saves Anita from the Jets in the third act, there’s a very meta sense of Moreno reaching out to rescue her younger self.)
And so much depends on Spielberg’s facility and skill in telling a story through sound and vision, which can be simple as some tracking movements he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski deploy to the image of leather-jacketed toughs casting German Expressionist shadows before a battle royal. It’s awakened his excitement not just for entertaining or sermonizing but for honest-to-god moviemaking. His West Side Story wants to be both an homage and an update, a period piece set in the days of sock hops and rumbles and a contemporary blockbuster. The dual goals sometimes put the film at odds with itself, but, at its best, this take gives everything a sense of urgency that plays into the intoxication of what you are watching. The play has been defanged over the years by gajillions of school theatrical productions and a cultural ubiquity. This film sharpens the material’s incisors again, and reminds you why, despite the flaws it had then and the flaws it has now, it’s remained vital. This West Side Story proves someone can still leave their mark on the legend without building it from the ground up. It’s a classic Spielberg joint, a classic hat-tip to Hollywood, and a classic, period. If this were the only musical of the last decade, it’d still make you feel like a renaissance was in full swing.